Julian Niccolini, co-owner with Alex von Bidder of The Four Seasons, a legendary foodie mecca before there were foodies and Manhattan's premier power dining room for decades, hadn't read New York Magazine's just-published feature, "What Have They Done to The Four Seasons," by Eric Konigsberg. Probably a good thing, as the voluble Niccolini is a little excitable, as well. And after a few choice passages were read to him, he served AVENUE a well-balanced plate of fury and sarcasm.
New York's story previews what's been happening behind locked doors in the former premises of the restaurant on the ground floor of the Seagram Building, a pair of dining rooms the pair ran for more than two decades. They took it over in 1995 from their former employers Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, who made the restaurant an international culinary destination after buying it in 1973. Then, last year, the Seagram Building's latest owner, Aby Rosen, refused to renew their lease and announced he would hand the place over to the trio of hot restaurateurs who've made a name for themselves downtown with restaurants like Parm, Dirty French and Carbone.
The Four Seasons will begin reopening in April as The Landmark Rooms at the Seagram Building (henceforth TLRATSB), so named in honor of the legal status that will keep Rosen and Co. from changing much more than a few elements of garniture--and the menus. That month, the former Grill Room will reopen as--shock, horror--a retro chophouse called the Grill, and in the fall, the former Pool Room will return as the Pool, serving what New York describes as "inventive seafood."
Rosen began sticking shivs into The Four Seasons even before evicting it from the premises, and in its latest salvo, the tear-down continues. Its food "was always besides the point," writes Konigsberg. "At the end of the day, there were only about 20 people who felt welcome under the previous regime," adds Jeff Zalaznick, one of the partners in Major Food Group, the new operator of TLRATSB.
Once he heard that, Niccolini was off to the races. "It's PR, that's all," he sputtered, "of course it's a lie. We had people hanging from the ceiling. The clientele was so disappointed that we were going to close, but we had no choice. [Rosen] told us our clientele was too old and didn't spend enough, but until the very end, we had waiting lists every day. Our food was fine food. If our food was so bad, why were we so successful?"
A new version of The Four Seasons will open in November at 280 Park Avenue, a mere three blocks to the south, and it will be "much more chic than the old one," Niccolini says. "We're reopening because we believe in New York City and its people and they believe in us. My God! I go out to lunch and dinner every day now because I want to see what people are doing, and every day, everyone wants to know when. When? When? When? When? When? When? Even today, seven people stopped me."
Why does he think the new regime at TLRATSB has been less than gracious? "Criticism is their game," Niccolini says. "It's destroy and conquer. This is the plan." Then he chuckles. "But it's up to the customers to decide."
Photo of Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder by Patrick McMullan